History of rubber hose animation.
As hand-drawn animation became the norm in the United States during the 1920s, there wasn’t yet a large enough workforce to deal with the rigorous production methods.
The rubber hose animation style came at the time when animators were making tentative steps into a genre whose popularity was exploding faster than the frames they could produce to keep up.
Before animating was really a career choice, cartoonists dealing in the confines of comic strips were fascinated by the possibilities of bringing their still images to life. As they got to grips with the demands of the medium, the distinctive design choices they made were half by design - half out of necessity.
Being in its infancy, the style also drew from surrealism and was quite meta in its approach. Each instalment of the Fleischer Brothers’ Out of the Inkwell series of shorts (1921-1926) began with a sequence where a hand drew the characters onto the page before they came to life.
The relatively simplistic style of the characters depicted in inkblot animation aided the speed of production - Walt Disney himself famously described the design of Mickey Mouse as little more than a timesaver:
“Mickey had to be simple. We had to push out seven hundred feet of film every two weeks…”
The rubber hose animation style is mostly credited to artist Bill Nolan, best known for working on Felix The Cat shorts and giving the character a new lease of life with the introduction of musical accompaniment - a few years before the “talkies” brought this era of animation to an end.
Like the Fleischer Brothers’ work showed, rubber hose animation rewrote the rules of reality. Felix’s tail doubled as a versatile tool - and he used it for everything from fighting fires as a hosepipe (The Smoke Scream, 1928) to cranking a car engine (Woos Whoopee, also 1928).
Arguably the most widely viewed example of rubber hose animation is Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928), credited as “A Walt Disney Comic by Ub Iwerks” and notably the first appearance of Mickey Mouse. From the very first shot which shows the squashing, stretching chimneys billowing smoke in time to the music, Steamboat Willie lends dynamic movement and freedom to almost any object it portrays.
The style fell mostly out of favour as Hollywood turned to the ‘talkies’ and Technicolor, with Walt Disney leading the charge towards a more realistic approach to the characters depicted on screen. This meant much less of the rubber-limbed surrealist movements and a focus on physics more geared towards real life.
However, rubber-hose animation remains a prised contribution to the art form. Indeed, recent productions in film, TV and even video games pay homage to the pioneering style.
The villain from Steven Universe: The Film (2019), Spinel, is animated in rubber hose style, at odds with the rest of the setting around her. Her animated flexibility is a physical asset as she does battle with the good guys. As the film has musical numbers, she’s also shown moving in time with an updated version of the jazz style which punctuated traditional inkblot cartoons.